“He was the Cliff that he is now. He went out and pounded both sides of the plate, attacking, real aggressive in the strike zone,” CC Sabathia said Tuesday. “He goes right after you.”
Lee lost his major league debut that day for Cleveland, despite pitching well against Minnesota. The two pitchers soon struck up a friendship, however, and it’s still going strong.
Now, the left-handed aces are set to square off in the World Series opener Wednesday night. Both traded by the Indians within the past two years, Lee will start for the Philadelphia Phillies against Sabathia and the New York Yankees.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Sabathia said.
Teammates only 16 months ago, Lee and Sabathia have more in common than their Cleveland history and potent left arms. Their families are friendly, and they still text each other often.
“I think we made each other better,” Lee said. “We helped each other out as far as how we thought we should approach certain teams and just what’s the best frame of mind to have on the mound and stuff.”
Sabathia won the 2007 AL Cy Young Award with the Indians, then Lee took home the trophy last year. They’ve both been dominant throughout this postseason, leading their new teams onto baseball’s biggest stage. And they’ve already faced each other in a similar setting.
Lee pitched the Indians to a 10-2 victory on April 16 in the first game at the new Yankee Stadium. Sabathia started for New York but did not get a decision.
“I guess it was a chaotic atmosphere,” Lee said.
Even though the Yankees lost, Sabathia has fond memories.
“That was pretty cool. It’s just weird because a couple years ago we were talking about maybe pitching in a World Series together. Now we’re in different clubhouses,” Sabathia said. “We’re close. You know, we always have been. We came up together.”
And after that game, Lee had dinner at Sabathia’s house.
“My wife cooked, and he came over and hung out. That’s just how we are,” Sabathia said. “We never talk about baseball. … Just two regular guys talking about whatever.”
New York’s home opener certainly drew plenty of attention, but it won’t compare to Wednesday night.
“This matchup couldn’t have been better,” said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, the skipper in Cleveland for Sabathia’s first 1 1/2 years in the majors from 2001-02. “This is a big, premier game. I’m looking forward to it.”
Both clubs are thrilled to open the Series with a well-rested No. 1 starter on the mound.
Sabathia, traded from Cleveland to Milwaukee last season, signed a $161 million, seven-year contract with the Yankees as a free agent last winter. He’s been worth every penny.
The 6-foot-7, 290-pound workhorse won 19 games during the regular season, then raised his game in the playoffs. He went 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA and 20 strikeouts in three starts, earning MVP honors in the ALCS.
“CC has been an enormous, enormous pickup for us. I mean, he’s doing exactly what we brought him here to do,” Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez said. “CC’s an amazing human being. He’s fit into our clubhouse extremely well and I think he has the perfect makeup and personality for New York.”
The defending champion Phillies have had some success against Sabathia, though. He is 1-2 with a 5.55 ERA in four career starts against them, including a playoff loss with the Brewers last year.
Pitching on three days’ rest for the fourth straight start, Sabathia lasted only 3 2/3 innings in that one. He allowed five runs, four walks and six hits, including a grand slam by Shane Victorino.
Lee, a fast worker with pinpoint control, has been just as effective as Sabathia this October. Acquired from Cleveland in a July trade, he is 2-0 with a 0.74 ERA in his first postseason. He has thrown 24 1/3 innings in three starts.
“When he’s on the mound, he wants to be perfect,” Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said.
Of course, while the Lee-Sabathia matchup figures to intrigue most fans, it will probably be painful to watch for those in Cleveland.
With both star pitchers approaching big paydays, the cost-conscious Indians dealt them away for packages of prospects.
“They can’t be feeling too good about it,” Lee said with a smile. “I’m going to do everything I can to take advantage of this opportunity.”